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Parshat Pinchas is a “power parsha”. So much happens in it: the end of the story of Pinchas’ murder of Zimri and Cozbi, the new census (39 years after the first one), Zelophehad’s daughters’ advocacy for their inheritance, Moses preparing for his succession and God’s choosing of Joshua, and prescriptions with respect to observation of the Tamid, Rosh Chodesh, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and all the Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot including Shmini Atzeret). There is so much to talk about in this parsha.

I’ve been coming to Or Shalom for a long time and, while I don’t attend every Shabbat, I have been present for many divrei Torah on Parshat Pinchas. Although it may have happened and I missed it, I don’t recall anyone focusing on Pinchas himself and the short story that begins at the end of Parshat Balak and ends at the beginning of Parshat Pinchas.

All of the other subjects in this parsha are much more palatable, even uplifting. It’s easier to focus on one of them and let the eyes and mind slide over Pinchas. But if we do that consistently, we avoid confronting things in our very own Torah, done in the name of God, that are very disturbing, that potentially evoke strongly negative feelings. We need to embrace and try to understand all of it and see if there is something that we can take away today. Some things are timeless; others need their historical background to be understood. The past often helps us to inform and shape the present. To understand and see ourselves as part of it gives us tools to understand our present. That is why knowing and understanding it, including its dark side, is so important.

The story takes place in one, difficult chapter in the Book of Numbers/Bamidbar – 25.

It is important to remember that the people who left Egypt in the Exodus were a “mixed multitude”. They did not spring forth fully formed as monotheistic Israelites. The wanderings in the desert enabled a gradual cultural and religious coalescence of the people in the wilderness. This was the embryonic growth of our people.

The struggle for liberation and deliverance from slavery included, and was often manifested by, the struggle against idolatry. The cycle of apostasy and return continued until very late. The maturation of the Israelites into a monotheistic people was excruciatingly slow, taking about 1500 years until our return from the Babylonian exile beginning in 538 BCE.

It is in this context that we find some understanding of Pinchas’ terrible deed. While encamped on the plains of Moab awaiting the crossing into Canaan, Israelite men mingled with local non-Israelite women. As predicted, marriage to idolaters lead to idolatry, in this case worship of the local god Baal-peor. Baal-peor was the local manifestation of the fertility storm-god Baal, the god of the Canaanite religion. The calf image that Israel fashioned of God and then worshipped at Sinai is a common representation of the deity Baal.

The role of Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, is central to the expiation process of this sin, a violation of the covenant so recently made at Sinai which prohibits foreign worship. The relationship between Zimri and Cozbi must be viewed in this light. The fact that they are named and their lineage given shows that they were influential members of their respective communities. Theirs wasn’t just any intermarriage. Zimri brought Cozbi to the אהל מועד, the Tent of Meeting, and had sex there. This was a blatant act of pagan worship right in the Holy of Holies, a shocking exhibit of brazenness. This is what Pinchas was responding to.

I won’t go into the gory details of his act explicated in various teachings. Suffice it to say that God rewarded Pinchas for his religious zealotry with the Brit Shalom, variously translated as the Covenant of Peace, the Pact of Friendship, understood to mean a covenant of eternal priesthood. The rabbis teach us that God did this in response to the people’s reaction to Pinchas’ extreme act. They accused him of wanton murder and protested that Aaron’s grandson, who had fattened calves to be sacrificed to idols, had the gall to kill a prince of Israel. Not only did God not punish Pinchas with death, He rewarded him by appointing him a Kohen.

Pinchas is celebrated in much of the rabbinic literature because he acted on, and saved, the entire nation from the calamity of the plague God had visited upon them to punish them for their idolatry. 24,000 people died in retribution for their “orgy of immorality” with Moabite and Midianite women.

I have a lot of trouble with the concept of zealot. At its most pure, it means someone who is an active and unreservedly enthusiastic supporter of a cause, especially a religious cause. But it has come to mean much more than that, mostly pejorative. I am afraid of people who are identified, or who self-identify as religious zealots.

Two responses to my concern are actually contained in the structure of the story itself and in the way it is written in the scroll. We don’t have to look too closely to see something very interesting, perhaps unique. Pinchas’ murder of Cozbi and Zimri is described at the end of Parshat Balak and his “reward” is at the beginning of Parshat Pinchas. Except for continuing stories, we don’t commonly see this in the Torah. Usually a short drama takes place entirely within one parsha. One interpretation is that this division teaches us that in matters of divine zeal, you shouldn’t expect immediate rewards. Also, if we look closely at the vav in the word shalom as written in the Torah scroll, we see that it is split, like two yuds, one above the other. It is written this way to show that peace that results from violence, even required violence, is defective.

I also found some comfort knowing that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, also wondered about the question of who qualifies as a zealot, noting the inherent danger lurking there. He said: “The true zealot is an utterly selfless individual -- one who is concerned only about the relationship between G-d and His people, with no thought for his own feelings on the matter. The moment his personal prejudices and inclinations are involved, he ceases to be a zealot.”

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